Chances are you’ve heard of Cthulhu. Big guy, beard made of tentacles, inspires terror wherever it goes.
But how well do you understand the genre the monster Cthulhu comes from? You might be a writer trying to create your own terrifying tales in the style of cosmic horror. And you might wonder how to quantify the unknowable, unseen, and downright incomprehensible onto paper.
Don’t be afraid, my friends, for I’m going to break down how to write cosmic horror to help you craft your own terrifying stories.
What is cosmic horror?
First up, it’s really important to understand what cosmic horror is, and where it sits in a historical context.
Cosmic horror is a genre that came out of the late Victorian era and early 20th century, with authors such as Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers, and H. P. Lovecraft at the forefront. These authors lived with the consequences of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, where science and rationalisation became the dominant mode of thought.
At the same time, there was a great interest in spiritualism and other-worldliness as a reaction to this rise of industry. Cosmic horror rose out of this conflict: on one hand, its protagonists desire to be rational, modern people, curious about the world and how it works, but they come face to face with the unknowable. And therein lies the terror.
The monster within and without
A key part to writing cosmic horror is balancing this conflict, or what I like to consider the monster within and without.
Cosmic horror is well known for its monsters; we’ve heard of the King in Yellow, Cthulhu, and Azathoth. The genre also draws from mythological creatures from ancient cultures, especially Egypt and Babylon. To view these monsters is to grasp a glimpse into a world beyond this one – whether that’s the Dreamlands, a normally unseen spiritual dimension, or outer-space itself.
It turns out that the world we live in is a veil for another reality; our everyday lives mask the terror that lies underneath the surface. That’s why there’s also an accompanying sense of awe and wonder in cosmic horror. The unseen can be beautiful – and deadly.
These monsters are terrifying because they are truly alien. They don’t obey human social structures or cues. They act according to their own desires and behaviours, nor do they usually place value on human life or existence.
It’s helpful to remember that Lovecraft was viewed as a science fiction writer as much as a horror author. He wrote about alien life. You only have to think about The Colour Out of Space, where a mysterious meteorite debilitates a rural landscape. It’s also a reason that the film Alien is one of the best examples of contemporary cosmic horror, because it is about a truly alien creature, where the humans can’t reason with it and Ripley can only slow it down.
And yes, there are examples in cosmic horror of smaller scale antagonists, who might be part-human, part-creature. Lovecraft’s deep ones from the Shadow Over Innsmouth spring to mind. But even these hint at the larger hierarchies beyond. And that is terrifying to our protagonists when they find this out.
This is why internal conflict is so important to cosmic horror. While there is horror to be found in the monsters themselves, the genuine horror is coming face to face with the other side, and realising you can’t do anything about it. You might survive, but if you tell anyone your story, you could end up committed to an insane asylum. Worse still, you might become what you feared.
Narrative styles in cosmic horror
This desire to tell a hidden story is at the core of cosmic horror’s narrative style. It’s no wonder then that common narrative styles are:
- The confessional: where the protagonist releases a burden by confessing what really happened. Often at the end, the protagonist is revealed to be dying, transforming, or mad. There needs to be a reason that they’re confessing – why tell the story now after so many years?
- The story within a story: This style of narrative comes out of the middle eastern classic, One Thousand and One Nights, where Scheherazade tells stories within stories to keep the Sultan from executing her. In this example, two people sit down to dinner or a drink, and one says, ‘By jove, a funny thing happened to me the other day…’, and so the story is framed within another. Often, the second story ties into the first setting, and all comes together in the end. A perfect example of this is Machen’s The Great God Pan.
- The epistolary story: An epistolary story is a fancy way of saying it’s told through letters and communication. In a modern sense, this could be a series of emails or text messages. Dracula is by far one of the greatest examples of epistolary novels, which uses letters and diary entries to tell the story of the famous vampire. Think of it as a mixed-media story.
If you’re writing cosmic horror, think about how you could use these narrative structures to write your own stories. There’s nothing to say you can’t play with these or apply your own writing styles to the genre.
Creating a cosmic horror protagonist
They say curiosity killed the cat. But it’s almost essential that your protagonists have a natural curiosity about the world around them. If they only wanted to stay home, they wouldn’t get into any trouble…
While this is no means definitive, protagonists are likely to be:
- Historians – whether that’s researching world history or family history
- Gentlemen with too much time and money on their hands, and an obsession with odd stories and old objects
- Concerned family members (Uncle Denny is acting weird again…)
- Tourists and travellers (Oh, so you don’t know about our town secret hehehehe…)
And sometimes trouble is thrust upon the protagonists. Your protagonists shouldn’t be superheroes; think about what an ordinary person would do if they uncovered a fragment of an ancient relic in their backyard…
Cosmic horror’s writing style
Because cosmic horror came out of gothic fiction, much of the writing style comes out of this period. For one, atmosphere oozes from every sentence. It’s as much about creating a creeping sense of dread as getting to the end point.
There’s a sense of bombastic awe to the writing, that is lost a little on modern audiences. For a contemporary author who nails gothic sensibility with a modern writing style, you only need to look at Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire.
And while it you might be tempted to write in the style of a Lovecraft or Chambers, I’d encourage you to explore your own writing style in approaching cosmic horror.
Don’t conform to outdated modes and stereotypes
Finally, much of cosmic horror was written in a period with close-minded attitudes to both gender and cultural diversity. It’s well known that Lovecraft’s work perpetrated racist stereotypes. Chambers’ sexism in The Harbor-Master caused me to write a feminist response in my story, The Harbor-Mistress.
You don’t need to conform to these outdated archetypes to write a cosmic horror story: far from it! Draw from the work, but see what you can do to subvert it. Victor LaValle and Matt Ruff are great examples of authors who draw from Lovecraft but use the mythos as a way of interrogating black history in America.
I hope these tips have helped you figure out what cosmic horror is, and how you can apply these craft techniques to your own work. Just remember not to prod Cthulhu while you’re at it.